Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Holding Hands

The two men looked at each other, standing so close that their shoulders were almost touching. Then, as they turned back toward to the audience, their hands slipped together, grasping each other tightly.

I swallowed and began blinking a little too fast. I raised my camera, trying to hold it steady as the session facilitator explained the drama.

It had started with a man representing a national translator standing on the far side of the clearing, while a man representing a people group without access to Scripture stood at a distance on the other side. The gap between the two was vast—it was obvious the translator would never make it to the BIbleless people group without help.

And so, the facilitator began calling out jobs—who will support this translator in prayer? Who will come alongside him as a linguistic advisor? Who will help work in his garden and feed his family? Who will give financial gifts to help him with school fees? Who will help him with computer and technical support?

The list went on and on, but without hesitation, the various church leaders in the audience in the Markham Tokples (local language) Scripture conference where I was a staff member this past January leapt from their seats to grab a sign naming their job and stand alongside the translator. With each new addition, the whole group was able to move closer and closer to the man still waiting without the Bible, closing the gap.

Finally, there was no gap, and the two men symbolized the bridge with a hand-grip of certainty. (In Papua New Guinea, it is not uncommon for men to hold hands with men and for women with women; it is a sign of deep friendship and brotherhood.)

But the drama wasn’t finished. The facilitator walked up to the translator and handed him a new sign, which simply stated Jesus.

And that’s when I gave up trying to blink back those tears (and take photos). This whole long line of jobs was not merely about bringing a translation to the Bibleless. It was about bringing Jesus.

Just like those national translators need a huge support system behind them to carry the love of Jesus into their own languages, I am grateful for my support system—a chain formed by each of you!—without which I wouldn’t be able to serve here in the work of Bible translation! Thank you!

I’ve just sent out my March newsletter. It will soon be put up on my Newsletters tab or you can email me to get on my mailing list.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Theology in Pictures

It all started because I asked a question.

It was a simple question, really, with no great theological import or moral implications of life or death. I merely wanted to know what clothes Zacharias would have worn into the temple when he was planning on offering incense and instead was struck mute by an angel?

I had been tasked to review and revise illustrations for an Adzera literacy primer that had been sketched out long ago, but never officially finished or checked for Biblical accuracy. It wasn’t supposed to be a major project—perhaps two weeks at the most. But, as I started to page through the illustrations of stories about women in the Bible, I began to ask questions.

What furniture was in Mary and Martha’s house?
Was casual entertaining in New Testament times held inside a room or in a courtyard?
What food did Jesus eat when invited to a dinner where he had oil poured over his head?
How did the woman who hemorrhaged for 12 years manage to touch Jesus’ hem without drawing undue attention herself (much less being trampled)?
What did the well look like that the Samaritan woman drew water from?

My desk now looks like this!
And with each question I plunged deeper into the abyss of New Testament culture (and watched the project increase in scope!). 10 books, innumerable websites, and hours of searching later I finally confirmed my first query: Zacharias would have been barefoot and wearing a lay priests’ outfit--a simple robe, trousers, a turban wrapped into a cone, and an embroidered sash wrapped around his waist with the tails dragging on the ground (except when he was officiating the incense, which is when they are thrown over his left shoulder). Now, on to the next question!

Illustrating for use in a literacy primer is more than just drawing a picture in pen and ink—every line, every bit of shading, and every fold of cloth is as integral to the story as the text themselves. Pictures are worth a thousand words, they say, and images can often be the turning point between understanding a passage's theology or giving up in confusion. Indeed, when we first teach adults to read, we have them practice “reading the pictures” to familiarize themselves with the story before they have to puzzle out the unknown alphabet of their own language. To help them with this, the illustrations need to focus on the correct story elements with all the drama of Broadway as well as be accurate to New Testament life and times (after all, this picture could very well be the first time the reader has ever seen a camel or a water jar or even a sailboat!). Finally, the illustrations of this type of initial introductory primer need to be able to both accurately portray ancient Israel’s culture while trying to avoid situations that could be interpreted quite wrongly by the lens of Papua New Guinea culture (for example, when an elderly Zacharias and Elisabeth are depicted clasping each other’s hand and gazing ardently into each other’s eyes, a Papua New Guinean can interpret that far differently (and with great distraction!) from the intended meaning!)

It’s been a fun project that has involved a very patient roommate who has put up with my papers and sketches scattered throughout the office, my racing into her room to spew out my most recent exciting cultural find, and even my telling her to please recline on the floor as if she was Jesus so I could creep up behind her and dump oil her head and see how her body would turn in a natural reaction (we simulated the oil). “Isn’t this so much more fun than organizing dictionary entries?” I ask her. She laughs and slides from the couch to the floor in compliance with my latest odd request.

It’s just another day in the ever-varied life of a Bible translator…and it all started with a question.

Today (February 21) is International Mother Language Day which is observed around the world to help increase awareness and show support for linguistic diversity and multilingual, mother-tongue education. “Mother tongue” is a phrase used to describe a person’s native, first, or primary language, usually the one that the mother spoke in the home and child heard and spoke since he was first held in her lap. You can find out more information on UNESCO’s website here.

How will you celebrate your mother tongue today?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Gathering of Brothers

the mango-tree auditorium :)
When I think about church leader conferences in the United States (US) versus in Papua New Guinea (PNG), I find they are remarkably similar in many aspects. Granted, in the US, when church leaders go to a conference, they might park their cars outside a megachurch’s auditorium, slap nametags in blue Sharpie on their shirts, grab a cup of coffee and maybe a donut, and settle into their padded seats, ready to take notes on their smart phone or netbook.

In contrast, this past January for the Markham Tokples (local language) Scripture Conference, we were sitting beneath a mango tree on logs, plastic chairs, woven mats, and backless benches (occasionally scrambling to cluster under a blue tarp when the afternoon rains hit), drinking kulau (young coconut), snacking on cooking bananas, and a few occasionally writing notes in school-lined notebooks. We scraped our feet across hard-packed mud instead of carpet, illustrated the lectures on a blackboard instead of a PowerPoint, and occasionally chased the chickens and dogs out from under the speaker’s legs (I’m not sure what the equivalent is in the US…). Like US conferences, we used a microphone (in the US, it’s a lapel with a massive sound system…here it was a handheld mike wired to a single crackly megaphone), worshiped with a band (acoustic guitar to PNG tunes), decorated the speaking area (we get tropical flowers freshly-picked from someone’s backyard…I imagine that’s a bit more difficult for the US in January) and even dimmed the lights for devotions (in our case, the sun went down).

Yes, conferences in both worlds are quite similar… but there is one major difference.

In the US, church conferences regularly happen.

In PNG, church conferences regularly don’t.

So, when nearly 40 leaders from six denominations and two languages gathered together in Siruwarang village for the first ever tokples (local language) Scripture conference to be held in the Markham Valley, and even in Morobe Province, it was a big deal. (Seven other languages were also invited, but torrential rains—the same ones that flooded the rivers I blogged about here—inhibited their travels, and they couldn’t come.)

The church leaders met for five days (two for travel) to discuss the work of Bible translation in their languages and the opportunity that it presents for local churches to get involved. I and eight other expatriate and Papua New Guinean staff taught sessions that ranged in topics including the history of Bible translation and the role of Wycliffe, God’s plan for language, what is involved in translation, and how can the church be involved in the work. The sessions were filled with skits, songs, illustrations, and lots and lots of discussion, where the leaders broke into small groups and animatedly argued about their vision for the use tokples in their churches, the obstacles they face as church leaders (and potential solutions), ways they can support translation right now, and how it might look for the churches and languages to begin working together.

 From the opening introductions, it was evident that God has already prepared the way, as each of the delegates arrived already enthusiastic about tokples and its role in the church. Discussions continued long into the night and even into early morning, not even breaking for meals (traditionally, Papua New Guineans don’t heavily converse during mealtime), and ultimately the leaders decided to form committees, begin awareness in their churches, raise support for the current projects, spread the word to the other languages, and start finding more ways they can incorporate using their own languages in their churches.

But the results of the conference impacted more than just language use. Just like in the US (and every other family), siblings don’t always get along, and in PNG, there is not a lot of precedent for (or examples of) denominations working together.  And yet, unity in the body of Christ is essential for Bible translation to move forward and take root. Thus, when these pastors and leaders were able to worship together, pray together, and share the challenges, trials, and blessings of ministry, they left greatly encouraged, having broken down barriers and created bonds and connections that many would not have otherwise been able to forge or even consider possible. “We need to have another conference!” they exclaimed, “We need to invite more people!”

Another pastor in a bright red shirt strode to the front of the audience and clasped the microphone tightly, “God has talk for the Markham District,” he pleaded with his brothers, “The church must come together as one!”

And that’s not so different around the world either.

The kulau tower (our equivalent of the coffee bar!)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

10 Toea Meri

“Do white girls not want to get married?” Rita, the national woman who comes once a week to help us with our house, asked as we sat down together at morning tea. I chuckled—when the group of singles under age 50 here in Ukarumpa is made up over thirty women and only three men, I could understand her conclusion. “No,” I took a sip of my tea. “We’re just following God where He calls us, and if He wants us to get married, that’s in His hands.”  She nodded in agreement and returned to her tea, but her words kept repeating through my mind.

photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Singleness: I haven’t touched on this topic much in the blog, but I thought in honour of Valentine’s Day, I would share a bit of my reflections on being a single female missionary in Papua New Guinea (PNG). It’s a complex topic with a lot of emotions and facets, and a single poem isn’t able to encompass all of them—nor should it. Instead of taking it as my treatise on marriage, identity, weekend plans, and why Paul writes about the glory of singleness, think of it as a glance out a window into a bit of my world, smudged fingerprints on the glass and all.

10 Toea Meri*
In America, I twitch the steering wheel, throw a smile, careless
to the gas station attendant, and take the left exit, an Amelia Earheart
speeding toward graduate school and dreams, heritage
bolted together by Rosie the Riveter. Here I am defined:
Person, Linguist. Independent.
But, cross an ocean and suddenly I’m merely
Woman. My chromosomes dictate morning armor
to walk down a street—deaf, dumb, blind
while watching, always watching, sideways, like a doe
stealing into an open glade. She and I know even
yards of fabric can’t camouflage the exotic.
Too many eyes or none of them...when unmarried
means pigs and ten-year-old boys converse over my silent
expertise and solitude casts whispers of a bedchamber.
Nogat namba,** and I beg for a spokesperson, shield, escort.
Qualification required: male.
Educated, but female; auntie, but rival threat
Immobilized (no partner) but flexible (no family), and I move
again. Our own widows and orphans, they whisper
I grip those promises with two hands:
not merely one to solve taxes, airports, plumbing, night sounds, but
one filled by Three,
called by Him who created two
and sent me, to give, to serve, to love with completeness that is

Definition: His.


*"10 toea meri" is a Tok Pisin (the local trade language) expression meaning "young single female." A toea is the smallest currency unit in PNG.
 **"Nogat namba" is a Tok Pisin expression meaning "no value, worth, status"

Sunday, February 10, 2013

New Year's Morning

An excerpt from my journal, reflecting on the new year, when I was living in an Adzera village this past January, preparing for a church leaders’ conference, which I’ve blogged about here and here.

Steel wool fireworks are pretty amazing!
A single file (like ants, I thought), we pattered through the bush, the bare feet of children noiseless on the mud. The beam of my torch (flashlight) seemed to catch at the ankles of the girl in front of me, and her shadow darted before her, trying to escape. The New Year’s celebrations continued on behind me—they would go on for hours yet, but it was quite late (or early?), and we had sung our sung and shook dozens of hands and spun the steel wool until sparks spattered off in a wheel of fire, nearly landing on the damp kunai (grass) roofs of the village houses.

Now, the nine of us snaked our way to the river to head back to a nearby village where our beds waited. River crossing at night is not much different from the day, I thought. It’s still too murky to see anything. I stepped gingerly, like a cat, down the mud-slick banks and now into the current, high from the morning rain. I bunched my skirt above my knees and the water drove the silty earth into my sandals. Across the ripples, my light broke, flickered, and the bite of the cold water woke me from any remaining sleepiness. Step, plant, brace; step, plant, brace, and the water shoved at my balance like an eager crowd. The other side now, and I rang out my skirt, fingering stones from beneath my sandal straps. Time to walk again. No stars tonight, but the clouds can’t seem to decide to rain.

Celebrating the turn of a calendar, the counting of days, hours, seconds until the long hand ticks vertical and a ball drops somewhere across the ocean, seems odd in a Papua New Guinean village. We get up when the sun rises, eat the belo (noon) meal at 3 pm, and talk about going to the garden tomorrow (meaning, next week). Church “begins” at the fourth bell, but we sit another half hour before the singing starts (it was overcast that morning). In the US, we watch smiling anchors chatter about the 7 am news, and our Outlook calendars pop up with notifications. We live for the weekend and have clocks in each room; our wrists are tanned with watch lines, and every interviewee knows if “she’s not 5 min early, she’s late!”
A mother starting breakfast in the village

But I sit here, the first of January 2013, and listen to the village wake up and stretch, begin scraping coconuts like every morning, and I can’t even remember what day of the week it is. Could it be Wednesday? No, I count back and remember church was two days ago. It must be Tuesday. Not that it matters—bananas cook the same either day.

I wonder if this is as close as I will get to live on this earth without time? Lord—is this what it’s like for you, where a day is as a 1000 years and 1000 years as one day?

A pig finds a discarded piece of dry coconut and eleven others converge, screaming in protest and jealousy. The hyacinth unfolds its petals, and the cicadas continue their everlasting thrum.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

My Conference Commute

Fact #1: Rivers that are flooded with mountain rains move very quickly.

Fact #2: Wearing a skirt when crossing a river flooded with mountain rains is like parachuting in a hurricane.

Some men listen intently to the speaker at the conference
It was Monday afternoon, and we were hiking our way to Siruwarang village, where we were excited to begin the first Markham Tokples (local language ) Scripture Conference. Church leaders from nine different languages had been invited to cast a vision for Bible translation in the Markham Valley of Morobe province, where many people still live without access to translated Scriptures. It was an unprecedented event in the area, and as is the nature of such things, we had already encountered many challenges that had threatened to shut the conference down before it had even started. But, by the grace of God, things had continued to move forward, and now I, a few children, and several of the other staff members were embarking on the hour-long (or so) hike through banana gardens and four rivers to reach the conference site.

Thanks to a tropical depression that had nestled close to PNG over the weekend, the rains had been steadily gushing over the Markham Valley every day, and while the first several water crossings weren’t bad, even now I could see dark clouds crowding over the mountains, upstream from where we stood. As a result, the river was over twice as wide and deep as it had been before, churning brown with mud and rushing in a frantic, panicked haste as if it was late to reach the ocean. The seven of us (and a dog) stood on the rocky shore in a rather dismayed resignation; we had no choice—there was no bridge and we had to cross. Most of us began gingerly feeling our way into the water, testing the current, and tucking our trousers and skirts above our knees, but the eight-year-old boy and the dog charged in with a bit more enthusiasm.

I was not taking photos at the time, but it looked kind of like this, albeit deeper, faster, and with ominous dark clouds (photo by Dan Bowman)
Suddenly, the laughing boy lost his feet, swept past me, rammed into his father (who caught his hand), and then streamed out behind him (who braced and twisted like a tree in a flood) as a chortling, blond-haired flag. Dropping my skirt, I lunged for the boy’s other hand, missed, and only just managed to keep my bilum (string bag) from slipping into the water too (which was now above my waist). Another man who had started downstream, forced his way towards us to snag the boy’s hand and the two men half-carried, half-pulled him to the far bank.  As I watched with relief the three clamber onto dry land, I realized that my heroic (but unsuccessful) gesture of attempting to catch the boy left me in a new predicament: I couldn’t move.

The water, in its turbulent, jubilant race down the river had encountered my fallen, calf-length skirt and turned it into a parachute worthy of stopping the Space Shuttle (or, if I took a step, hurtling me with gusto down to the port city of Lae). And so, there I stood, immobile, soaked to my armpits, and attempting to look dignified (which is hard to do when you’re stuck in the middle of a river due to your skirt…), until one of the other men on staff realized my quandary, sloshed back, grabbed my hand, and yanked me out of the strongest part of the current.  :-)

And so, that is how half the members of the conference staff (plus a dog) arrived at the conference opening soaked, covered in mud (the paths through the banana gardens were a mud’s version of Lightning Sand from the Princess Bride), and planning a new route for our commutes to and from the conference village for both the return that evening and the rest of the week (but that's another story)!

What is one of the more interesting commutes that you have ever experienced?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Catching a Ride

The man who spoke is sitting in the middle
Rain rattled over the tarp roof, and the church leaders leaned forward to catch the muffled words. It was the closing evening of the Markham Tokples Scripture Conference, where nearly 40 delegates from six denominations had gathered to discuss church involvement in Bible translation. Despite the noisy downpour, they each stood and shared their excitement about translation; now an elderly man in a white collared shirt took the microphone.

When I received the invitation to the conference, I didn’t know where it was or how I’d get there, but I knew I wanted to attend. So, this past Monday, I traveled from my village to the market outside Lae, where I was told to hop on a PMV (public motor vehicle) named FGG. I searched the town and couldn’t find it, but, when I went back to the market, I saw FGG leaving to go back to town!  Immediately I began a chase—back to town, missed it, then back to market again, where it left just as I arrived! I decided to take a different PMV part of the way, and when I got to the end of its route, I again pulled out my letter and asked one of the local young men if he knew of any buses going to the conference site. “Yes,” he responded, “the one that just pulled up!”  I scrambled into the last open seat, and headed north. When I finally climbed out of the bus, I was amazed to see two of my friends standing at the PMV stop! Now I knew I was in the right place, and I praised God for bringing me all the way here!
His voice competing with the clattering rain, he shared passionately the need for the Bible to be translated into his language, Wampar. He looked around at his fellow church leaders and cried, “We can’t wait any longer! Let’s go and do it!

I was one of the staff members at this conference and was privileged to watch the leaders' excitement grow over the four days of discussion. Stay tuned for more stories (like the flooded river)!